Exploring e-waste

Orange Beach, FL after Hurricane Ivan 22 September 2004. | Photo courtesy of FEMA

Josh Lepawsky first became interested in the topic of e-waste (electronic waste) more than a decade ago through learning about Malaysia, which was building new cities devoted to upgrading the value chain in terms of digital technologies.

I had been really intrigued how people talked about information and communication technology as if it existed in this ethereal, weightless other place. I started thinking about where things were made, by whom and under what conditions, realizing there’s a whole tangible geography behind all of this. Through that work, I became very interested in the overall environmental impact of these technologies,” he says.

Lepawsky works with the Department of Geography at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He will be delivering his talk, Text to Speech: Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste, on Oct. 20 at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Harbour Centre campus.

New book released

Lepawsky’s talk at SFU will be largely based on his upcoming book. He looks at already existing models of multi-billion dollar industries that require a number of safety demonstrations to be made by manufacturers before they even put their products on the market. If this process can be done in other industries, then they can do it in the information technology industry as well.

Overflowing e-waste.
| Photo courtesy of The Wire Project

“That doesn’t mean you can, pardon the pun, copy-paste what has happened in the automobile sector, food and pharmaceutical sectors. But if it exists in one place, it can be done in another. Those changes that took effect, like having seat belts, were not always required. It took decades of organized consumer action to get those sorts of regulations put in place,” Lepawsky says.

He explains that electronics are ubiquitous but unevenly distributed in all kinds of objects including things like vehicles, cars and trucks.

“E-waste can become this very slippery concept that seems to be very straightforward, but it’s very telling that certain types of devices come to be associated with that term. When a whole series of other devices, like refrigerators, ovens, appliances, becomes an issue for policy makers and law makers, they’re confronted with this difficulty of how to legally define what they’re trying to regulate,” he says.

He uses the United States as an example due to its state jurisdiction. In two adjacent states, there might be two different lists of devices that count e-waste.

Residents displaced from Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie.
| Photo courtesy of Discard Studies

“And if you’re standing in one state, a VCR for example, is considered electronic waste but the next state over, it’s not. It’s like this horrendous notion of blood quantum in critical race studies,” he says.

Media in general, he notes, emphasizes what happens to post-consumer electronics and implies that getting rid of consumer electronics erases all of the e-waste generated by industries. He disagrees.

“That amount of waste [used to produce consumer electronics] vastly exceeds the amount of waste that we put into the waste stream as individual consumers. Mining and manufacturing for electronics, the waste from those activities, is way more of a problem,” he says.

The more Lepawsky studies about e-waste, the more interested he gets in it.

“The more and more I get into it and the deeper and deeper I go, it does start to extend in so many ways for other kinds of contemporary social economic environmental problems – so many other problems that are not e-waste but have so many similarities that you can start talking about them as well,” he says.

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